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9M-MRI Malaysia Airlines” by Pieter van Marion, CC BY-NC 2.0

I guess the appropriate place to start writing about my experiences in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur is with the flights. The aeroplane – the seemingly innocent form of transport, not often a major part of a person’s holiday. But it can be one of the scariest elements for us Allergians.

My family and I were flying with Malaysia Airlines to Hong Kong via Kuala Lumpur. When I found out that my dad had booked with Malaysia Airlines, I did some Googleing as to Malaysia Airlines’ nut policy and got pretty concerned with what I found. You can find it at http://www.malaysiaairlines.com/au/en/plan/special-needs/health-medical-guide.html under the ‘Other Medical Info’ section.

The policy begins with the standard ‘we are unable to guarantee a nut-free environment’. Obviously (and not expected). The real problem begins when they talk about their “precious” peanut snacks. These are the standard snack on Malaysia Airlines. One would expect that a reasonable policy would be to have an alternate snack which is served when there is a person with an anaphylactic peanut allergy on the flight (of course, only if the airline has been given appropriate warning). But no. Rather than simply offering an alternate snack, the policy creates a lot more work for airline staff (and stress for Allergians) by ‘creating a buffer zone’, comprising of the three rows in front and behind of the passenger, within which the all-important peanut snack will not be served. This means that the unfortunate passengers in the “buffer zone” miss out on a snack altogether, while seeing the more fortunate passengers seated in the other rows receiving their snack. Wouldn’t it be fairer and more logical for all if there was a replacement snack that all passengers would receive on flights on which an Allergian was present?

But wait.. it gets worse – the policy proceeds to state that ‘peanut-based dishes (such as a satay dish) may be served’ within the buffer zone. Now I don’t know what you guys are thinking, but to me, this is totally inadequate. Plenty of airlines have peanut policies far more extensive than this, and other airlines will ensure that an entire flight is nut-free where required. No doubt, airlines have multiple meal options that vary from flight to flight, and therefore to offer a satay dish on a plane when there is an Allergian on-board (who has given appropriate notice to the airline) seems to reflect a disregard for the seriousness of these allergies. Luckily for me, this didn’t happen.

I was also required by Malaysia Airlines to fill out various forms in advance of the date of my flight, which included signing ‘release forms’. I have plenty more to say on this topic generally, and please stay posted for a piece to come that discusses my opinions on the whole aeroplane and nut allergies issue. But for now, let me stick to my experience with Malaysia Airlines.


Part of the Malaysia Airlines Release Form

Upon checking in at Melbourne Airport, the lady at the check-in desk was aware of my allergy, but required me to re-fill in the release forms. Why? Who knows. And again on my way home. Then came the standard airline questions that are always a bit tricky to answer. “How serious is your allergy”. Ok that’s an easy one. “Are you allergic by touch?” Less easy. “Are you allergic by surroundings?” Hmm.. Tip for travellers: what is said at the check-in desk is less important – it is more important what you discuss with the flight attendants on-board, as they are the ones who will actually implement any decision made. Speak to the supervisor on-board if there are any problems. 

Non-allergy sufferers don’t quite understand the difficulty answering these questions. Firstly, allergies are extremely unpredictable and can vary from situation to situation. Secondly, a non-allergy sufferer may think “great – she can breathe it in.. let’s go to town!” but it’s not that simple. Breathing in the nuts is one thing, but that comes alongside an entire plane-full of people with nuts on their hands.

Further, I know that if I were an airline that was responsible for my passengers, and if I didn’t want to create a scandal, I would be weary of the risk that a person who says he or she isn’t allergic via surroundings may in fact have a reaction when he or she is in a confined space stuck up in the sky at high altitude. But maybe that’s just me. And this is regardless of whether or not the person had signed a release form.

The problem with these questions is that it puts us Allergians in the uncomfortable position whereby we have to stress the seriousness of our allergy, but at the same time ensuring we are not denied the right to board the plane. An airline can deny you entry with the click of a finger, so many may feel pressured to downplay their allergy to ensure they do not end up missing their meeting in Dubai or ensure they are not stranded at Brunei airport [yes, this almost happened to me – see here].

My family and I thought it best to discuss the details of the flight with the in-flight crew rather than the check-in counter. Upon boarding the plane, my brother, R, wiped down my seatbelt, arm rests, TV screen, remote control and tray-table with anti-bacterial wipes to try get those sneaky buggers’ traces away. I looked like a paranoid OCD-sufferer, kind of like the lady with the lint-roller who I watched with intrigue as she obsessively wiped down her jacket for 20 minutes at the boarding gate prior to the flight.

Thankfully, the plane to KL was pretty much empty. In our section of the plane, there were only about 3 rows full of people. This was comforting for me as it meant that even if they served peanuts, it would only be to about 15 people. This is much less daunting than 200 or so “infected” hands moving about the plane.

We spoke to the flight attendant and fortunately, they had decided to not serve peanuts. Hooray! I could relax, except for the fact that I was awfully aware of my hands and what they had touched and what they were touching. It was like I had jumped into the shoes of a complete germaphobe who saw little alien germs running around the place [if only we could see them running around right?] While it may have been a peanut-free flight, it was definitely not a peanut-free plane, but rather one that had served thousands of packets of peanuts in its time. Wouldn’t it be awesome if we could shine a UV-light onto an area and see the nut traces, so we knew exactly where to avoid?

The flight went without issue and we had arrived in Kuala Lumpur. Our next flight to Hong Kong was on a much smaller plane, given it was just a 3 hour flight. We had boarded the plane and engaged in my neurotic wipe-down session when a flight attendant came over and asked me the standard allergy questions. We went through them all and he agreed to our request that no peanuts be served on the flight. But soon before take-off, two other flight attendants came over and ran through the same questions with me. They then said they would move me (and my family) to the back of the plane where it was empty. We couldn’t really understand why, given we had just been told they would not be serving peanuts. I don’t really know what happened in the end. My nut-sensitive-sniffer-dog nose didn’t identify any peanut wafts from the distance and I didn’t see any peanut packets, but maybe they served peanuts to the front half of the plane. Who knows. I’m still alive so, as they say, the rest is history.

I had made it to Hong Kong to begin my Asian adventure, lacking some sleep. The flights had proceeded with little argument and no issue. However, my journey home wasn’t all smooth sailing and there were a few hiccups, so stay tuned.

In relation to these legs of my journey, I commend Malaysia Airlines for accommodating my request to not serve peanuts, despite the fact that they did not have a replacement snack. As important as this flexibility is, I do acknowledge why an airline doesn’t wish to inconvenience its other passengers. The airline was extremely accommodating and agreed to my request without any protest and I thank them for that.

However, overall, the ‘buffer zone’ policy is absurd and requires updating. It creates more work for staff and is indeed more unfair and inconvenient for passengers who would no doubt see that others are receiving snacks. A simple rice snack replacement served to all passengers when an Allergian is on-board would be hassle-free and I don’t think that any passenger would even notice the difference.

I criticise Malaysia Airlines’ peanut policy, and not Malaysia Airlines itself, whose treatment of my allergy on this leg of the journey was without fault. However, I think that the policy is problematic. This is worsened by the fact that the accommodating flight attendants tend to go above and beyond the policy anyway and deem it more appropriate to not serve the peanuts at all. Therefore, by maintaining this ‘buffer zone’ policy, the airline creates an unnecessarily stressful situation for Allergians prior to boarding, rather than giving us the reassurance beforehand which would promote the airline as allergy-safe. This means that the credit afforded to the airline for their allergy safety is unfortunately lessened. Further, the policy is likely to be a deterrent for many allergy-sufferers booking with Malaysia Airlines when, in reality, it is likely they will have a nut-free flight.

This being said, I will always be more weary of flying with an airline that serves peanuts as its primary snack, as compared to one of the many who do not. It is an additional worry and stress for Allergians that can be avoided by flying on an airline that has a more thorough peanut policy, or which doesn’t serve peanuts as a snack at all.

Finally, a side note (and not something that is specific to Malaysia Airlines): I have noticed in my time that many companies that I have dealt with, including airlines, seem to have the outlook that as long as they are legally protected, that is all that matters. If they have ticked off their legal requirements and the Allergian has signed a waiver form, then they need not worry. But IMO, this is not the right attitude to have. An allergic incident on a flight that could have been avoided cannot be good for any airline’s image. Liability is one thing; but remember that allergies can be a matter of life or death.